Although the idea of ray tracing had existed for a while before the actual announcement from Nvidia, we haven’t seen any real-time ray tracing before from a single GPU.
This market-shifting move was further strengthened by Nvidia’s decision to release the best representation of their innovative technology straight away.
Two years on, we’ve seen Nvidia release RTX 3080 and RTX 3090 as one of the best performing cards on the market. Although we do have to admit that this time around AMD finally put up a solid fight against NVIDIA with their RX 6000 Series GPUs.
However, supreme performance doesn’t come at a cheap price. As a matter of fact, technology wasn’t the only thing being stretched to its limit.
The biggest source of unease towards a new GPU for Nvidia’s last generation of cards was the price. At the time, the best card on the market was RTX 2080 Ti with an eye-watering price, which kept away even the most loyal Nvidia fans.
However, Nvidia sought to rectify this and with the release of a better-performing RTX 3080 at $700, we were finally able to enjoy a top-of-the-line performance at a somewhat reasonable price. There is also a mid-range RTX 3070 at $500 and RTX 3060 Ti at $400.
Still, considering that the GTX 1080, the top of the line GPU back in 2016 was priced at $600 and the flagship before that, the GTX 980 (generation before 1000 series) was just $550, the GPU market isn’t exactly rectified. Both AMD and Nvidia are to blame.
Nvidia also released the RTX 3090 at $1500 but seeing how that card compares more to the previous generation’s enthusiast-class $2500 Titan RTX, we should be more than pleased.
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What You Get With RTX
Ray tracing wasn’t the only thing that Nvidia innovated, although it was certainly the most hyped-up feature.
At first, the cynical PC hardware enthusiasts were skeptical about the idea and were quick to point out and make memes mocking the technology from the moment it was released.
Where they were sort of right at the beginning was in their assessment of ray tracing not bringing a leaps and bounds improvement in the looks department, but upon closer inspection, even those hard-set in their beliefs had to admit this was different.
How It Works
In the past, reflections and lighting effects existed and we could see them, but the truth is that those were just part of an elaborate smoke and mirrors illusion. The static lighting effect would be effectively hard-coded to show that some reflections and shadows can look nice, but that wasn’t the real deal.
The game developers were burdened with the task of making their games look properly shaded and illuminated with these tricks, and the fact that they managed to delude even the most hardened enthusiasts is just a testament to their brilliance.
What RTX does is bring the real-time light particle simulation to the table. The world of the game is now rendered dynamically, allowing players to be increasingly more immersed in it.
The visual effects are rendered so realistically that we’re slowly but surely moving towards hyper-realistic video game graphics.
When light particles and reflections are calculated with RTX, the engine takes into consideration the material from which the surfaces it reflects light off of are made.
For example, effects are rendered in a different manner if the reflecting surface is water when compared to glass. Likewise, the light will look different when hitting a marble floor or sand.
Below is a tech demo for ray tracing capabilities as showcased for Battlefield V at CES 2019.
On a really interesting note, RTX wasn’t the first technology to provide the audience with the magic of ray tracing. In fact, most modern movies with high-budget CGI effects feature ray tracing.
Although Compleat Angler from 1979, which was produced by Bell Labs engineer Turner Whitted, is credited with the first usage of ray tracing, it wasn’t until 2013 with Pixar’s Monsters University that the technology was fully adopted.
So how come Pixar did it in 2013 and gamers had to wait until 2018?
Prerendered ray tracing vs real-time ray tracing
The answer is simple – what Pixar did is completely different than the ray tracing we see in games. Pixar (or any other animation studio) prerender every single scene which probably took them hours, weeks or even months to process.
Once all those scenes are ready, they can stitch them up and turn them into a movie such as Monsters University.
On the other hand, scenes in video games with ray tracing are processed in real-time. RTX 2000, 3000 and RX 6000 GPUs process the ray tracing the moment you enter said scene which is why it has such a huge impact on in-game performance. In games such as Metro: Exodus average FPS could drop by 40% or more and might even cause stuttering.
Additionally, we have to consider that ray tracing in video games is minimal compared to some ray traced scenes in animated movies. RTX 3000 or RX 6000 GPUs would need months to process a complicated ray traced scene. It would be impossible to do it in real-time.
The way scenes are ray traced with RTX GPUs is also different when compared to animated movie scenes.
The player’s camera will trace a path through a single pixel to whatever object is behind that pixel and to the light source. Ray tracing also takes into consideration if the object’s exposure to light is slightly disturbed or even completely obstructed. Below is a great visual representation of how that works.
This is accomplished by using a bounding volume hierarchy traversal which, as the name suggests, is an algorithm for traversing a BVH tree structure. Although this greatly reduces the computational requirement, there is still a very noticeable surplus there.
GPUs that don’t have additional ray tracing hardware, would be required to use shaders, which would lead to a tremendous bottleneck.
Enter RT cores.
Nvidia’s simple solution to that added computational need is to assign dedicated cores to those calculations. The RT cores hold two separate units where one handles the bounding box tests, and the other one performs ray-triangle intersection tests. This significantly reduces the strain on the GPU and allows it to perform other tasks more effectively.
Deep Learning Super Sampling – DLSS
Nvidia brought several advancements for AI calculations to the RTX cards, but the most prominent use can be seen with DLSS.
DLSS can be looked at as an extension of the anti-aliasing technology, although it works differently. Anti-aliasing is a technique that reduces the jaggedness of edges upon rendering, but with DLSS this is done without overbearing the shader cores. This difference allows the same effect, but without the performance hit.
For the same reason we fear technological singularity, we are excited about DLSS. That might’ve sounded oddly terrifying, but there’s no reason to fret – DLSS is a friendly AI that can optimize the look of your games.
Following some growing pains when DLSS was first released, we can now see a much-desired improvement following the release of the RTX 3000 series cards. It appears that Nvidia listened to its audience and focused on working with developers to ease their process in making DLSS-compatible games.
Big Tech Equals Big Price
Acknowledging how amazing Nvidia’s technology is in their RTX series is fine, despite what the internet may have to say about it. What isn’t amazing is the mere fact that there just aren’t that many games out there that can fully support everything RTX cards have to offer.
Swinging back to the good side, apparently the industry is thoroughly impressed by stuff like ray tracing and DLSS. As it appears, as time goes on, we’re more and more likely to see this tech being utilized to its full potential.
As Nvidia is firmly sitting on its GPU throne, they are at liberty to dictate the price points for their cards and when they’ll introduce the world to the never before seen technology like real-time ray tracing. It would be foolish not to take advantage of this and stretch the limit of their consumers’ wallets.
One might look at RTX 3090 and its $1500 price and judge it even more expensive than RTX 2080 Ti. However, it’s important to remember that the $700 RTX 3080 handily outperforms RTX 2080 Ti and is considered Nvidia’s flagship, and dare we say, its best representative.
The RTX 3070 and RTX 3060 Ti offer further price drops compared to their predecessors and that is certainly commendable. Unfortunately, even with AMD‘s release of RDNA 2 GPUs in late 2020, we still didn’t see any considerable decrease in price in both high and mid-end GPUs.
Upon its release, RTX might’ve been a notch above the expected and comfortable price range, but in 2021, RTX looks like it has found its footing, both in terms of performance and price. In conclusion, we can safely say that they are most certainly worth the money.